Tag Archives: nigel smith

In the woods with Andrew Marvell

Weng Naiqiang - scene from the Cultural Revolution

In December Michael Schmidt provided a thoughtful response to the piece on ‘Upon Appleton House’ and I’d like to respond and cover some of the areas that I didn’t cover last year.

The poem is Marvell’s longest and is ostensibly ‘about’ the Fairfax estates in Yorkshire where Marvell was employed as tutor to Mary Fairfax between 1650 and 1652. Last year I focused attention on the woodpecker and what the references to ‘traitor-worm’ and ‘treason’ might signify but now I want to thinks about the section on the estate’s woods in the context of the rest of the poem

The poem seems to be trying to do a number of things, the first being to pay tribute to the Fairfax family and then to use the grounds of Appleton House as both a place of rest from the cares of the world and the site of poetic experimentation

Nigel Smith usefully divides the poem into six main sections:

  • the first ten stanzas deal with the architecure of Appleton House as a reflection of Fairfax’ modesty and humility;
  • the second section tells a story about the union of the Fairfax and Thwaites families and explains how this is tied up with the origins of the house as a convent;
  • this is a description of the garden which is presented (oddly) in military terms;
  • the fourth section is the most technically ambitious and describes the meadows and the effects of the floods that occasionally occur
  • this concerns the woods although the eighteen stanzas are interrupted by three ‘about’ the river;
  • the last sixteen stanzas focus on the river and describe the onset of evening and the arrival of Maria Fairfax- the poem close with further praise of the Fairfax dynasty.

One of the many good things about Andrew Marvell is that he is so difficult to pin down and much critical energy is wasted in trying to position him within the mid to late 17th century. This if further compounded by the conflicted and deeply factional times in which he lived and the fact that he seemed to occupy both ‘camps’ in fairly rapid succession. There’s also the fact that most of the poems seem to point in more than one direction at the same time.

According to Smith, there was a bit of a fashion for writing about landscape during this period and I read the section on the meadows as Marvell’s successful attempt to overgo his peers. We’ll start with the mowers:

To see men through this meadow dive
We wonder how they rise alive.
As, under water, none does know
Whether he fall through it or go.
But, as the mariners that sound,
And show their lead the ground,
They bring up flowers to be seen,
And prove they've at the bottom been.

The above is an example of Marvell the technician, he combines his image with complete control over language and the poetic form. It can be argued that this is mere mimesis but the seafaring analogy sets us up for the flooding in the later part of this section so that the reader is already thinking of the meadows as ocean. There’s also other stuff going on, rising ‘alive’ and providing proof of plumbing the depths both of which have obvious religious connotations – and God was very big indeed during the Protectorate. The most impressive aspect (to me) is the absence of frills, there are no describing words and what needs to be said is said with the minimum fuss.

Before we get to the flooding, we have this political aside:

For to this naked, equal flat,
Which Levellers take pattern at,
The villagers in common chase
Their cattle, which it closer rase;
And what below the scythe increased
Is pinched yet nearer by the beast.
Such, in the painted world, appeared
Dav'nant with th'universal herd.

Smith’s gloss, as is the norm, goes on at great length about the levellers and also throws in the Surrey Diggers and Winstanley but kind of skirts around the central ‘issue’ which appear to be enclosure and the related debates about encroachment on common land. The sub-text would appear to be that the Levellers are campaigning for something that the labourers on the Fairfax estate already have. Given that Fairfax was involved in the suppression of this particular group of eccentrics, I fondly imagine his discussions on all things radical with his daughter’s tutor (when they weren’t discussing Spenser, obviously).

As a fully paid-up Spenserian, I warmly applaud the snook that is cocked at William Davenant (who declared Spenser’s language to be obsolete and the immortal Spenserian stanza to be ‘unlucky’) but I’d also like to point out that this isn’t political per se but a conscious effort to please Fairfax and to efficiently overgo one of the prominent literary figures of the time. Needless to say, Fairfax was a committed Spenserian and would have vehemently disagreed with Davenant’s view.

This isn’t to deny that politics play a part in the poem but that the views expressed or alluded to are more readily attributed to Fairfax than to the poet. I’d also like to argue that it’s technically difficult to get so much stuff into an eight line stanza.

We now move into the wood which has a similar tone to that of ‘The Garden’ (which I’m still claiming as a sequence rather than a single unified poem) but it does have a dedicatory element:

The double wood of ancient stocks
linked in so thick, an unison locks,
It like two pedigrees appears,
On the one hand Fairfax, th'other Vere's:
Of whom though many fell in war,
Yet more to heaven shooting are:
and, as they Nature's cradle decked,
Will, in green age, her hearse expect.

Smith doesn’t gloss ‘green’ and he should because it’s the only way to make any kind of sense of the last two lines, if indeed sense is altogether desirable. As I’ve said before, the seventeenth century was a very different place and we should think much more about these differences rather than about the apparent similarities. Of course, there are poems and bits of poems from the period that we can relate to but there are also some aspects that we’ll never get to grips with. The colour green, for example, was packed which much more ‘meaning’ in 1651 and is likely to have been used so frequently by Marvell because of it’s radical ambiguity and its deployment throughout the cultural landscape. Suffice it to say that ‘green’ here may not mean either natural or young or that it could mean both of these and six or seven more.

I wrote recently about ‘The Garden’ and had a bit of a moan about the current tendency to equate the mention of soul with the Neoplatonic. Marvell’s soul might make an appearance in these woods too-

Thus I, easy philosopher,
Among the birds and trees confer:
And little now to make me, wants
Or of the fowle, or of the plants.
Give me but wings as they, and I
Straight floating on the air shall fly: Or turn me but, and you shall see
I was but an inverted tree.

I’d like to make a claim for a parallel with the soul that flies in ‘The Garden’ but I’d also like to remove the Neoplatonic connotations and supplant it with something about the Edenic quality of the wood and the apparently simple qualities that are explored by the ‘easy philosopher’ but that makes a number of assumptions that I want to make because it fits with what I want to think about with regard to Fairfax’ decision to retire from public life which nicely chimes with the act of reflection that Marvell appears to admire.

A final thought- the line on treason (written about in the first post) is glossed by Smith as a straightforward condemnation of regicide but is it another reflection of the Fairfax family stance on this rather than what Marvell thought? The regicide isn’t equated with treason in the ‘Horatian Ode’ but Charles’ courage on the scaffold is praised….

Back in the Garden with Andrew Marvell’s soul and the colour green

This is going to appear more than a little disjointed but there is (trust me) some method in the confusion that follows. I’ve been re-reading Marvell’s ‘The Garden’ and trying to follow Nigel Smith’s logic with regard to a Neoplatonic reading of the sequence and giving further consideration to Bruce R Smith’s gloriously ambitious ‘The Key of Green, Passion and Perception in Renaissance Culture’ in order to try and get this particular poem a bit clearer in my head.

There are a number of things that I think need to be established before getting into the specifics:

  1. the middle of the 17th century is very far removed from and foreign to the early part of the twentieth century, the religious groups of the Interegnum and beyond were not the Taliban, John Evelyn was not our first ecologist regardless of what Simon Schama might say;
  2. the appearance of the word ‘soul’ in a poem does not automatically imply the presence of all things Plotinus hovering benignly (or otherwise) over the text;
  3. poetic influence, especially from one poet to another, is hugely complicated and should not be treated as a simple ‘given’;
  4. Andrew Marvell’s ‘The Garden’ may not be a single poem but a sequence of nine self-contained and coherent poems grouped around a single theme just as Hill’s Oraclau has Wales and the Welsh as its unifying link;
  5. work on the development of gardens and the place of the garden in the 17th century mindset / cultural landscape is only now beginning to produce results and these currently cover a very broad range of perspectives;
  6. as with ‘soul’, the use of the word ‘green’ should not be automatically be taken to refer to all things natural and wholesome.

I feel that I can now turn to the poem and start with what Nigel Smith has to say about the Neoplatonic basis for the poem/sequence- “In effect, M. transfers the metaphors of Neoplatonism from the cosmic to the human scale, almost parodying Neoplatonic language: Should not abide unchanged when it produces: it is moved and so brings forth an image. It looks to its source and is filled, and going forth to another opposed movement generates its own image, which is sensation and the principle growth in plants…. The part before this, which is immediately dependent upon Intellect, leaves Intellect alone, abiding in itself.'” The quote is from Book III of the Enneads and Smith refers us to the first 6 line of stanza / poem VI:

Meanwhile, the mind, from pleasures less
Withdraws into its happiness:
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
For other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that's made
To a green thought in a green shade.

To back up his claim, Smith quotes at some length from Nathaniel Culverwel’s ‘An Elegant and Learned Discourse of the Light of Nature’ and concludes with “Again, the broad patterns of thought M.’s thought are evident.” It so happens that I know a little of Plotinus and the Neoplatonic thread in English verse and it is this sort of opportunistic reading that really doesn’t do attentive readers any favours. Before proceeding with this I think I need to say that Nigel Smith’s work on Marvell (especially in the Longman Collected) is a model of what scholarship should be about- it’s just that here he does overreach himself. If we treat ‘The Garden’ as a single poem then it is clear that it is saying a number of quite different things and that these things are not easily compressed into one particular school of thought. We might also want to suggest that the poem deliberately resists a single, unified reading. This is not a radical insight about Marvell, people have been complaining about the unresolvable ambiguity in his work since 1681. The quest for a single coherent meaning or viewpoint is very attractive, some time ago I posted something on this blog which proposed to make complete sense of ‘An Horation Ode’ purely on the strength of its closing lines.

Before going on to the next stanza / poem, I’d like to draw attention to Smith’s “In effect” and “almost” in the above quote which might just indicate that he knows that he’s on a slippery slope.

We now turn to the next stanza which brings us to Edmund Spenser and the soul:

Here at the fountain's sliding foot
Or at some fruit-tree's mossy root,
Casting the body's vest aside,
My soul into the boughs does glide:
There it like a bird it sits, and sings,
Then whets, and combs it sliver wings;
And, till prepared for longer flight,
Waves in its plumes the various light.

Smith states that Spenser’s ‘Hymne to Heavenly Beautie’ is the source for the third and fourth lines and cites most of stanza 4 of that poem. However, the Yale edition of Spenser’s shorter poems is of the view that this sense of ascent is a reflection of Plato rather than Plotinus. Smith also quotes Alistair Fowler’s view that Boethius, Jeremy Taylor and George Herbert are also sources. I don’t have access to the 2003 Times Literary Supplement article that this is taken from but, as a general rule of thumb, anything that Fowler says must be correct because he is better than anyone else and writes with superb elan and authority.

Coincidentally, I know nothing of Boethius but I am now in possession of Prynne’s ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ which includes Boethius in its ‘Reference Cues’ list so I may have to read this before I get to the rest. I don’t wish to minimise the various threads that Marvell may be making use of here but I think my point is that influence isn’t just about mimesis or imitation, the strongest type of influence is that which gives the influenced permission to act or create in a certain way. For example, Pound gave Charles Olson permission to write a very long poem about many apparently disparate things just as James Joyce gave David Jones permission to write about the thought patterns of troops in WWI.

In this way Spenser gives permission to Herbert and they both give permission in turn to Marvell to write about the soul in a way that may contain elements of the Neoplatonic whilst not embracing the whole philosophy. It is eminently possible, for example, to draw a parallel between Ficino on the One and the structure of Book I of the Faerie Queen but that doesn’t mean that Spenser is putting forward a specifically Neoplatonic position.

With regard to green, this occurs twice in the poem / sequence, in addition to the above, stanza / poem 3 begins with this-

Nor red nor white was ever seen
So am'rous as this lovely green.
Fond lovers, cruel as their flame,
Cut in these trees, their mistress' name
Little, alas, they know, or heed,
How far these beauties hers exceed!
Fair trees! Wher'se'er your barks I wound,
No name but your own shall be found.

When I last wrote about this, I observed that green could be read in a number of different ways. Bruce R Smith has these-

  • leaves, especially bay leaves, especially bay leaves wound around a
    poet’s brow,
  • greenwood, greensward, greenhouse,
  • the village green,
  • verdigris, litharge of lead (PbO), and quicksilver “ground with the pisse of a yong childe” to make an emerald-green dye,
  • the suit of “flaming greene like an Emerald” that St. George is supposed to have worn when, en route to England, he stopped off in Egypt and was crowned king there,
  • a table covering for conducting legal business (the Board of Greencloth,
  • the green baize of the House of Commons), playing card games, and shooting pool,
  • green phantasms in “Perspective-Houses,” where, according to Francis Bacon, the inhabitants of New Atlantis produce “all Colourations of Light. All Delusions and Deceits of the Sight, in Figures, Magnitudes,
    Motions, Colours: All Demonstrations of Shadows,”
  • greenhead and greenhorn,
  • “the greene-ey’d Monster,” and
  • “Good is as visible as greene.”

Smith contiues with- “The last of these greens is John Donne’s in “Communitie,” a poem printed with Donne’s amorous verse in 1633. Donne’s speaker begins with the commonly held proposition that we must love good and hate ill. But what about “things indifferent”? These we have to “prove” or try out, “As wee shall fi nde our fancy bent.” Take women. Nature made them neither good nor bad, so we must use them all: “If they were good it would be seene, / Good is as visible as greene, / And to all eyes it selfe betrayes.” Green is so visible, it turns out, not just because it is everywhere to be seen in greenwood and greensward or because the speaker is a greenhead full of youthful desire but because women are green goods, pieces of ripening fruit that the speaker can devour one after another.”

I’ve quoted the above at length because I want to make a more general point about the occasional need to accept that we don’t actually know and will never know what certain things mean or refer to and that this is especially the case with Marvell. Perhaps it might be more appropriate to celebrate this multiplicity than contributing to sterile and unresolvable debates over precise intention and meaning….

In the Garden with Andrew Marvell

This was the year when I should have become a Marvell completist, I had planned to read the letters and the Nigel Smith biography and reacquaint myself with the finer points of the mission to Moscow and the second Dutch war. Instead I’ve written about ‘Appleton House’ but nothing else.

I have several excuses that I won’t bore you with but recently I’ve come across bits and pieces of criticism (whilst looking for other things) and most of these have focused on ‘The Garden’ which I’ve since re-read and am beginning to appreciate how exceptional and odd this poem is.

In previous readings I’ve taken it to be a poem about the value of retreating to the countryside away from the pressures of urban life but with a bit of bite, a kind of ironic take on this well-worn theme but now I think it’s a bit more than that. This thinking has incorporated the various and wildly divergent readings promulgated by the academy which has brought to mind Geoffrey Hill’s recent comment about the frequent folly of seeking out a single unified ‘meaning’. Having said that I must confess that these attempts to crystallize a variety of elements does cause me to reconsider my own take on things. For example, in her essay ‘Marvell’s Amazing Garden’, Mary Thomas Crane makes a strong case for ‘wonder’ as a central, unifying theme:

“The physiology of wonder takes a central role in Marvell’s “Garden,”
linking wonder and amazement to images of attempted escape, entrapment
and enclosure that recur throughout the poem and which
contribute to Marvell’s sense of wonder as a state of suspension. The
poem begins with the potentially surprising idea that ambitious men
“amaze” themselves in a vain quest for earthly recognition and reward.”

I don’t want to discourage this kind of stuff because it gives the rest of us more to think about and often to return to a poem with a fresh pair of eyes but this worry about theme, intention and meaning does tend to detract from the enjoyment of the poem as poem- in the way that Marvell augments and intensifies ordinary language to do complex things. As a reader it is what the poem does that gives me far more satisfaction than working out what it might mean. In this instance there’s many things being done in relatively few lines. The first thing to note is that the poem can be read as a sequence of numbered (they are numbered in the first published version in 1681 and in the Longman edition but not on the luminarium site) eight-line poems each of which stands in its own right in that it makes sense without reference to the poems that precede or follow it. I’m finding that thinking in this way and avoiding a ‘panoptic’ overview is the most effective way of getting down to the detail.

I also need to confess an interest in the garden and the idea of gardens in the 17th century which I find fascinating as to how this ‘place’ developed and underwent several transformations within the national psyche. So, i have a bias too but I hope it doesn’t prevent me from demonstrating that there doesn’t need to be a unifying meaning other than the title of the sequence.

This is the third poem:

Nor red nor white was ever seen
So am'rous as this lovely green.
Fond lovers, cruel as their flame,
Cut in these trees, their mistress' name
Little, alas, they know, or heed,
How far these beauties hers exceed!
Fair trees! Wher'se'er your barks I wound,
No name but your own shall be found.

I need to say here that Nigel Smith’s commentary in the Longman edition of the poems is exemplary. I know that some have commented that the notes are too detailed but, because the 17th century is so utterly different from our own, I don’t think that you can have too much context. With regard to the above, which seems reasonably straightforward, I didn’t know about the “occult writings and nature mysticism” that holds that at the time of creation God placed the name of each created thing within that thing and that he placed in Adam all these ‘signatures’, hence the greater significance of the last two lines.

The other stuff that these lines kick off for me is the contrast between the lovers’ unheeding zeal and the cool detachment of the speaker together with his intent to do the right thing, i.e. only to place in the tree what was initially placed their by God. I think we then might want to consider what it is about love and lovers that causes them to inscribe things in this way. It might be an indication and expression of ‘cruel’ sexual passion but it’s also about memorialising the relationship by creating a mark or a trace that will last for a long time. There’s also the business of signing and the competition for a kind of ownership- as in ‘this is our tree because we placed out names in it as evidence/symbol/mark of our love for each other’ which might be contrasted with the eternal ownership marked by God’s initial writing of the name.

We then come to the thorny question of who is speaking here, Smith refers to this as Marvell’s persona but this particular voice seems different from the other authorial voices in the poem and we also need to ask why he should be signing the trees in this if they have already been signed by God- isn’t this more than a little presumptuous or an example of what Prynne would describe as ‘self-vaunting’?

Smith also points to the subversion of ‘traditional’ colour theory that occurs in the opening lines and others have commented on the wonderfully complex notions of green that held sway in the period, noting that the brilliant “Annihilating all that’s made / to a green thought in a green shade” occurs at the end of the sixth poem. I don’t intend to go any further with this here but to flag it up as a further example of just how much is going on in these eight lines.

So, this particular poem is one of the less complex in the sequence but is satisfying and successful in its own right in that it uses plain language in a way that manages to make us think again about things that we might take for granted. In just eight lines it has managed to broaden my understanding of the fitful and stuttering formation and growth of our cultural landscape. It’s also what Geoffrey Hill would describe as technically efficient, although it might not be beautiful.